Hugo Pool (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Robert Downey, Sr. is an original American independent film maker. He has been at his craft for more than 30 years now -- his debut, Chafed Elbows, came out in 1965. His best known work, the trilogy of Putney Swope, Pound, and Greaser's Palace, was released between 1969 and 1972. Downey has always taken his own road, never worrying about or giving into commercial pressure. When asked by the producer of one of his films whether it would make money, he replied "Not a dime."

Three decades of film making haven't dulled Downey's edge, and, in 1997, he's back with a terrific new feature -- an upbeat, quirky romantic comedy that reminds us just how stale most entries into this genre are. But Hugo Pool, called by its creator a "comedy with serious relief" isn't just fun and games. For Downey, there's another, deeply personal side to the film. Hugo Pool promotes awareness of ALS (commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease), the degenerative condition that claimed the life of the film maker's wife and co-screenwriter, Laura, in 1994. True to his nature, however, Downey never gets maudlin or preachy about the subject.

Hugo Pool is essentially a day in the life of Hugo (Alyssa Milano), a Southern California pool cleaner. As she goes from house-to-house, we meet members of her strange gallery of clients: Franz Mazur (Robert Downey Jr.), a deranged film director who murdered one of his extras; Chic Chicalini (Richard Lewis), a gangster with a killer stare; and Floyd Galen (Patrick Dempsey), a victim of ALS who ends up joining Hugo on her rounds. Also lending a hand are Hugo's burnt-out father, Henry (Malcolm McDowell), and her gambling-obsessed mother, Minerva (Cathy Moriarty).

The love aspect of Hugo Pool involves Hugo and Floyd, and it's touching, sweet, and funny. Despite Floyd's considerable disability, the attraction between the two grows as the film progresses, eventually reaching a satisfying conclusion. Patrick Dempsey, whose character can't move or talk, does all of his acting with his face and eyes. Alyssa Milano, whose resume includes several B-grade exploitation flicks, is a real revelation. As Hugo, she's great -- tough, energetic, and charming. If she wants to impress directors in the future, she should show them her work in Hugo Pool.

The supporting cast is top-notch. Malcolm McDowell does his best Jimmy Cagney accent while portraying an ex-druggie with an unusual method of therapy. Cathy Moriarty is a woman who will go to any lengths to place a new bet. Sean Penn plays a mysterious drifter who wears a registered pair of blue shoes (Penn did the role with the stipulation that he got to keep the shoes). And Robert Downey Jr., in his sixth outing for his father, willingly pokes fun at his own off-screen image (Hugo Pool was filmed shortly after his most serious round of drug-related police troubles).

Like David Mamet and relative newcomer Quentin Tarantino, Downey writes some of the best dialogue around, and his script sparkles with it. His words aren't the kind of things real people would say, but they have a rhythm and charm all their own. Characters make comments like "Chances are taken, not given," "I'm too superficial to be hurt," and "If words could speak, I still would have nothing to say." Out of context, these phrases are clever; when seen as part of the film, they're uproarious.

As Hollywood churns out $100 million blockbusters and the Miramaxs and Fine Lines of the world go after the next The English Patient or Shine, idiosyncratic, thoroughly-delightful features like Hugo Pool are becoming more and more of an endangered species. Thankfully, there are still directors out there like Robert Downey Sr. who don't care what the market will bear and are willing to do whatever's necessary to get their own singular vision to the screen.

Hugo Pool (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1